In March, Senate President Roger Roth got the call to prepare for an unprecedented — but not unthinkable — event in the legislative history of Wisconsin. “Whatever you have to do,” he was told by Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, “we need to be able to have a contingency plan in the midst of this coronavirus [outbreak].”
Roth’s job as presiding officer: Get the state Senate ready for a first-ever virtual meeting of the entire chamber, so that it could pass essential bills related to the COVID-19 pandemic while keeping its 33 members and legislative staff safe. “I immediately called our legislative service agencies: our technology folks, our lawyers, our parliamentarians,” Roth says. “And from that point on, they haven’t stopped working.”
After much preparatory work, practice and dress rehearsals, actual virtual sessions of the Wisconsin Senate began being held in April.
“First, you want to protect the health and safety of our members, and one-third of [the senators] are 68 or older,” Roth says, noting that older people are at a higher risk of developing serious, potentially fatal, complications if exposed to COVID-19. Just as important, in the midst of these extraordinary circumstances, people are looking for stability and want to be reassured. I think it’s important to show that even in these challenging times, our government, just like our people, will endure.”
Illinois schools must now grant a two-hour excused absence for students seeking to cast a ballot. Signed into law in January, SB 1970 is for “any student entitled to vote” in a primary or general election (either on Election Day or during the state’s early-voting period). The school can specify the hours that it will allow a student to be absent.
In Wisconsin, the path to getting any kind of dyslexia-related bill through the Legislature has never been easy, with bills in various sessions getting caught up in what has been called the state’s “reading wars” over issues such as phonics, whole language and how best to instruct students.
But proponents of getting the state, and its school districts, to do more to help young people with dyslexia and related conditions finally found some legislative success in early 2020. “It’s going to be a very good first step,” Wisconsin Rep. Bob Kulp says of AB 110, which became law in February. “[It] puts dyslexia on the radar screen in our state.”
With the governor’s signing of HB 2 in early 2020, Ohio deepened its commitment to “upskilling” the state’s workforce, a policy objective that lawmakers say will help employers fill high-demand jobs and prepare individuals for better-paying jobs.
Six years ago, with a $2 million legislative appropriation, Minnesota launched a pilot program to help some of that state’s most at-risk students — young learners who lack stable or adequate housing. The state began partnering with schools and local organizations to provide vulnerable families with subsidies that helped pay their rent over two school years. The goals: Stabilize housing and prevent homelessness, thus improving school attendance and, over the long term, academic performance among these students.
The early results, says Eric Grumdahl, were a “powerful signal” that this kind of intervention worked.
Ninety percent of the pilot program’s students with a known housing status were stably housed. (All of them had entered the program experiencing housing instability or school changes.) Further, these young people were more likely to be attending school on a regular basis than their homeless peers.
“That encouraged us to take this to a larger scale,” adds Grumdahl, who works for Minnesota’s Interagency Council on Homelessness and the Department of Education.
The “larger-scale,” permanent program is now called Homework Starts with Home, and the Legislature appropriated $3.5 million for it this biennium as part of Minnesota Housing’s base budget.
The hope among legislators is to reach more young people, and to stop what can be a destructive cycle — homeless students are much more likely to fall behind and drop out of school; individuals who don’t complete high school are at a much higher risk of homelessness as young adults.
“The more children have to change schools [because of housing instability], the further they fall behind,” notes Barbara Duffield, executive director of the nonprofit SchoolHouse Connection, which advocates for policies that help these students. “They’re losing time and they’re losing coursework. At the same time, they’re also losing attachments to friends and teachers, and all of those emotional pieces of stability.”
Not surprisingly, then, the achievement gaps between homeless students and their peers are wide. Nationwide, for example, less than two-thirds of homeless youths graduate from high school on time. That compares to 84 percent among all students, and 77 percent among low-income students who have stable housing.
Legalized sports betting has come to a fourth state in the Midwest, thanks to bipartisan bills signed by Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in December. The package of legislation marks the culmination of years of work by lawmakers to change state policy on sports betting and internet gaming. The end result: Michigan residents will be able to wager on sports events (amateur and professional) and participate in online, casino-style gaming such as poker through the state’s commercial and tribal casinos.
Three recent national studies underscore the strength of state economies, fiscal conditions and revenue collections entering the new legislative year in the Midwest. Data from the Urban Institute, for example, compares state tax collections between the third quarters of 2019 and 2018 (July to October) — for every state in the region, revenue was up, and North Dakota was one of eight U.S. states with year-over-year increases of 7.5 percent or more. Nebraska and Wisconsin also experienced significant revenue gains.
The future of South Dakota’s marijuana laws is in the hands of the state’s voters. In late 2019 and early 2020, Secretary of State Steve Barnett validated the signatures of petitions for two different ballot proposals — one is an initiated measure to legalize marijuana for medical purposes, the second is a proposed constitutional amendment to legalize recreational and medical marijuana.
It’s a word and a power of the legislative branch most commonly associated these days with removing a U.S. president from office. But “impeachment” not only appears in nearly all of the nation’s state constitutions, its inclusion in them — as a check against overreach or abuses of power by state-level executive and judicial branches — predated the writing of the U.S. Constitution.
“Ten of the 12 state constitutions at the time already had impeachment language in them,” notes Frank Bowman, a professor at the University of Missouri School of Law.
The reason: The drafters of those state constitutions were well-versed in English history, and aware of how and why Parliament used the threat of removing a monarch’s ministers from office as a way to curb abuses of power.
A new Ohio law is taking aim at what state election officials and legislators say is a growing threat — cyber attacks. Under SB 52, signed into law in October, an Ohio Cyber Reserve will be created as a division of the state National Guard. It will consist of cyber-security experts who can help deter and mitigate attacks. This force will work with local governments and businesses.